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May 2024


Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Publisher: Pixeljam
Developer: MNKY
Release Date: 2023


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PC Preview - 'Ex-Zodiac'

by Cody Medellin on Oct. 21, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Ex-Zodiac is a fast-paced, low-poly 3D rail shooter that's heavily inspired by classics from the early '90s. Join protagonist Kyuu as she fights to free the worlds of the Sanzaru Star System, which has been overrun by the intergalactic terrorist organization known as Zodiac.

If you're a fan of Nintendo games, one of the hardest things is being a fan of franchises that don't get much attention from the company. While Fire Emblem, Kirby and Mario games get a plethora of titles to keep their fan bases happy, there are others that don't get much representation. A good example of this is Star Fox, a series that people love but hasn't had as many games as some of the other Nintendo properties. Much like fans of F-Zero, indie developers have started to fill in that gap on both the Switch and on other platforms. One such title is Ex-Zodiac.

Ex-Zodiac features a basic story . You play the role of Kyuu, an ace space pilot who takes it upon herself to stop the terrorist organization called Zodiac from taking over the Sanzaru Star System. Much like its inspiration, there's enough to get you going but not much else if you're a fan of lore, so you have to be in it for the action if you want to get the most out of the game.

The game's mechanics already do a good job of emulating some of the things seen in both the 16-bit and 64-bit versions of Star Fox. You have a standard blaster, and while you'll need to press the button multiple times like in the good ol' days to get rapid fire, you can hold down the fire button and sweep the cursor over enemies to get a lock-on for homing fire. In place of bombs, you get missiles that provide a wide area of damage upon impact. You can speed up with a boost, employ air brakes, and even perform a barrel roll. All of this is done with a craft that feels very responsive, so it never feels like a chore to dodge enemy fire or move around the environment.

The levels also do well in making it feel like Nintendo's classic. There's the typical city complete with windmills. You'll get through the outer parts of an ice planet and its lava-filled core while avoiding lava plumes and mechanical spires. You'll fight in the ruins of a decimated planet, and you'll even get out of your ship and onto a hoverbike to fight on a crowded highway. There are a few more areas you'll fly through, but it is safe to say that you'll get a bit of déjà vu going through the combat zones that have been included thus far.

One thing that will come as a surprise are the bonus levels, which are only accessible once you find the hidden data board in a level. What makes this special is that the game stops taking cues from Star Fox and starts to pay homage to Sega's Space Harrier. The mechanics also change to better emulate the arcade classic, as you only have a basic fire button. Scrolling across a checkerboard landscape remains intact and speedy, with columns and various other objects in your way. There are even boss fights that mimic what you'd see in the arcade original. It's a fun little addition that helps elevate the whole experience.

Ex-Zodiac provides a good challenge in its six normal levels, and it does a good job in whetting your appetite for the six more that are planned to hit before the game is complete. That said, one thing that will surprise people is the title's adherence to old-school progression. You get three lives to work with, but there's no way to gain more along the journey. Once you deplete your reserves, you get a "Game Over" screen with no option to continue. Selecting "play" again means starting from the very beginning instead of at the last planet. It may be nostalgic for those who grew up with classic arcade games before a "continue" system was implemented, but those who are used to more modern conveniences may be taken aback by this design decision.

As far as presentation goes, the developers do a good job in adhering to both classic and modern standards with a filter selection. Select the original look, and you get the polygons in their raw form with a ton of jagged lines and no anti-aliasing. Far-off objects also tend to morph into view at a visible distance. Select a more modern look, and everything comes in with razor-sharp polygons and anti-aliasing, but without textures on the polygons, so it retains a clean look. Any incidents of pop-up are also absent, while the effects come in cleaner. The sound is retro, with the music going for a sampled-out space epic while the chatter is still told by sound effects rather than dialogue.

If you plan to play the game on the Steam Deck, then you'll get an experience that matches quite closely with what you'd get on a good desktop/laptop. The lower resolution of the screen complements the game's low resolution, making the title look exactly like it does on a bigger screen. The system lasts about five hours on a full charge, making it fall in line with a good number of indie games that seem perfect for the portable system. For the most part, the game holds a solid frame rate throughout, but there are moments when enemies appear and the game stutters or pauses for a brief moment before continuing. This is acceptable for a game in Early Access, but it will need some tuning before the experience becomes indistinguishable between Steam Deck and PC.

At the moment, Ex-Zodiac does more than enough to satisfy both Star Fox fans and fans of 3D rail shooters. The choice between a retro and a retro-modern look makes the game look great for fans of either style, while the mechanics are mostly spot-on. Only a few tweaks are needed to tighten up the gameplay. It is the kind of title that requires some dedication if you want to defeat it the first time, let alone discover its secret levels. When Ex-Zodiac fully releases next year, it'll be interesting to see if the later levels uphold the momentum and promise of the opening levels.

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